The Nun’s Priest’s Tale 5

Chauntecleer is a sensible coward when he sees the fox and would rush off but the fox has a smooth and cunning Satanic way of flattering him and claiming friendship though the slippery rhyme “freend” and “feend” should awaken suspicion. He has not come to spy on secrets but to hear the cockerel sing and therefore catches him on his weak point of pride, comparing his voice to that of an angel and repeating “trewely” in dubious fashion. The conflict in the fowl is now between self-preservation and self-esteem. The supposedly knowledgeable fox quotes Boethius (whose work on music has, in fact, no reference to birds) before calling upon Chauntecleer’s parentage to induce him to give voice – another mock-heroic instance. “Gentillesse” picks up his earlier use of “gentil” and the cockerel is once more tempted through respect for his father, mentioned by Pertelote at line 202 to persuade him to eat the laxatives.

The fox uses euphemism: “han in myn hous ybeen to my greet ese” [pleasure] when he has clearly eaten the parents and refers to his own sharp eyes (ironically as he is about to recommend closing his to Chauntecleer) but the cockerel is well on the way to being deceived by this subtle, crafty, indirect and falsely reassuring speech. The fox gives a portrait of the father’s methods of improving his voice which includes shutting the eyes : “He moste winke” and refers to a habit of standing on tip-toe, which our cockerel has done earlier in a mood of arrogance. Chauntecleer will therefore not see the fox’s approach and will also make his neck “long and smal” ready for the bite. Yet the father was considered wiser that anyone else in the region, a pre-empting device just in case Chauntecleer was beginning to think him foolish. The fox’s oily discourse now refers to a story-within-a-story of Burnellus the donkey in which a young man breaks the leg of a “yong and nice” [foolish] chicken who takes revenge later by allowing the man to oversleep on an important morning and lose his promotion, the somewhat irrelevant point being a satire on the Church but the fox does reveal his own interest in cunning as a topic. He hastens to state that there is no comparison between that fowl’s wisdom and that of the father and quickly returns to his main aim: to encourage the cockerel to crow and become distracted.

Chauntecleer has fallen victim to flattery: whether out of free will because of his character (recognising that character may militate against true choice) or fate we are not told but a generalisation follows concerning courts where there is many a “losengeour” [deceiving flatterer] who please the listener more than a truth teller; the Priest is sliding in a minor moral to weight his story and adds to the respectability by quoting Ecclesiasticus xxvii 26 or Proverbs xxix 5 but augmenting also the comic mock-heroic tone. The cockerel simply has not noticed that following his father’s example will lead him to be eaten. In the passage that follows, the hero is inflated and then suddenly toppled. Chauntecleer obeys the fox’s instruction in detail, making himself an easy target for the predator’s jaws, and is, indeed, seized by the “gargat” [throat], which is an appropriate place for a singer to be attacked and which is connected with Taurus, the presiding sign of the Zodiac at the moment. The tale has now speeded up and become tense as no-one follows to save him.

Yet the Priest cannot or will not stick to the fable narrative without a further digressio – or three – all in mock-heroic mode. There is skill in the rhetorical pattern of quadruple apostrophe to Destiny, Venus, Geoffrey de Vinsauf and the hens. Destiny cannot be avoided and repetition of “Allas” (a muted example of anaphora) accentuates the mock tragedy, the fault of both fowls, which happens on Friday, the day of Venus, who ought to have protected him on her day. He bewails Chauntecleer’s fate, attributed to to “Destinee, that mayst nat been eschewed” [avoided] and is firmly in the mock-heroic mode. The cockerel is seen as the servant of Venus because of his sexual prowess and the Christian doctrine that copulation should be to increase the population and not be undertaken for pleasure is made ridiculous by application to fowls – although the Priest is probably serious in his teaching. The irony is Chaucer’s.

At the naming of Gaufred, Geoffrey de Vinsauf, the famous rhetorician, we can see that the Priest admires such knowledge and devices and that the reader is right to place emphasis on their use (and occasional misuse) in the Tale. His formalised passage inveighing against Friday because Richard I was injured/died on that day of the week (26th March 1199) was a well-known extract from his work Nova Poetria and the Priest regrets that he does not have the expert’s “sentence and … loore” [sentiments and learning].

This humble approach the speaker’s own status is an example of diminutio and can draw attention to his scholarship whilst denying it. We are now prepared for an outcry as he states that the women did not make such “lamentacion” when Troy fell but we do feel that the clucking of hens as a potential Greek Chorus will not measure up to the high laments in the The Aeneid. Pertelote is also comically compared in her noise to Hasdrubal’s wife’s shrieks when Carthage burned down, before suddenly committing suicide in the fire. Brisk action in this example prepares us for comparable events in our Tale but not before another reference to heroic stories in the story of Nero where the wives wailed because their husbands all lost their lives, although they were innocent. This comparison to the fate of the cockerel who was not guilty of any sin makes us realise that, although comic, most of the examples are well-chosen in one point of comparison: the balance between the everyday matters of a barnyard and the classical examples is held so that, whilst smiling, we do feel the excitement of the narrative, which has gripped us throughout the philosophical and learned digressions.

Another blatant oral signal: “Now wole I turne to my tale again” re-introduces the “sely widwe” [simple] with her daughters, forces of order and restitution. Anaphora is now used in a more obvious form with the rather weak word “And” bearing the emphasis but the comparison is maintained by the use of the same word for these women as for Hasdrubal’s wife: “sterte/stirten”. The pace quickens as the tumult develops and is a masterly detailed and visual description of a chase. Although a low-life episode, the narration is controlled and evocative as they call out and run after the fox, assembling as they go a rich and varied collection of persons and animals accompanying them.

The noise, confusion and determination are potently portrayed, the chase is hectic and involves every person and animal right down to the bees! Collie would not necessarily be a collie dog and the other two are probably hunting dogs who frighten the cattle and pigs with their barking – we notice the inversion of the verb and subject so than “Ran” can begin each line and add urgency. The scene has been compared to the moral confusion after the Fall of Man and certainly, when they run so that they feel their hearts might break, the mention of “feendes” does suggest religious overtones. The serenity and orderly quiet of the widow’s establishment (or Paradise) is broken in an instant by the mobilisation of the rescue party whose numbers swell so rapidly. The pace has increased and we are back in fable mode: Chauntecleer is a cockerel not a Classical hero – the mention of Jack Straw of the Peasants’ Revolt, the Priest’s only contemporary reference, does not elevate the scene as did the others. Alliteration of “b” and onomatopoeia (“powped/howped”) are overdone in the next lines but nonetheless effective in the humorous but thrilling context. We do care what happens to Chauntecleer.

After this splendid evocation of the chase, the Priest returns to a brief but serious contemplation of Fortune and sudden reversals (referring perhaps to the Monk’s stories and showing that this will be different) as if he were sermonising although we may feel that it is Chauntecleer’s instinctive quick wits that save him rather than Fortune. Yet the Priest’s comment rather undermines the discussion on free-will and predestination earlier with its pagan attribution. There is a pattern of deception and flattery as the cockerel, reminded of how the fox spoke to him, includes his voice in order to put suggestions in his mind. However, Chauntecleer is not smooth and slimy but chirpy and effective as the fox obeys his hint and opens his mouth to agree. Again we need to take account of the strata of speakers: Chaucer, the Priest, the cockerel cunningly saying “Sire, if that I were as ye” [in your place] and then imitating the fox’s possible resolution to outwit the pursuers: “‘I wol him ete, in feith, and that anon.'” The cockerel flies out “deliverly” [nimbly] and, unlike the characters in all the exempla, survives: neither is the end like that in the earlier stories Chauntecleer tells although his dream does not show his being eaten – as though the Priest has not made up his mind about destiny or dreams.

With oily and suspect humility, the fox makes a desperate last attempt to regain power and his dinner but both animals have learned their lesson through error. It has therefore been a Fortunate Fall for the cockerel in that he has acquired a kind of moral or at least practical wisdom: keep alert; avoid flattery; do not talk too much. The relation of instinct to rational control, thoughtless vanity to presence of mind, foolish pride to humility has been established and he accepts that self-government and wariness are vital. All this is summed up in one memorable down-to-earth couplet:

For he that winketh [blinks], whan he sholde see,
Al wilfully [knowingly], God lat him nevere thee!” [prosper]
The fox agrees that “governaunce” [self-control] over one’s tongue and remaining immune to flattery are paramount and so an unlikely accord is struck.

The Priest now justifies his choice of a fable to impart wisdom and suggests, in homely terms, that his audience takes the “fruit” and leaves the “chaff” recalling his use of the same image earlier. He ends with a conventional prayer, as if glad to be finished. After all the philosophy with its questions of human destiny and his tone of romance and heroism, we are left in the barnyard with the everyday suggestion that we should learn from experience. Thus the Tale is an ironic comedy: man and hen are both responsible for errors of judgement and flaws of self-knowledge and self-regulation but from this flows wisdom. They are seen as wilful and egotistical yet amiable and capable of loving others, partly in charge of their actions and partly controlled by other forces: they are free and yet they are not. They inhabit a mixed world of philosophy and laxatives where both have their place but it is flattery that destroys self-control and blinds us to what we should see: the reality of errors, negligence and possible catastrophe. The Tale may be mock-heroic but it does not contain biting satire: neither the Classical learning nor the fowl is seriously ridiculed (nor is the Church) and the farmyard Paradise is regained to the pleasure of the reader who has been kept entertained by the mild and gentle atmosphere for the most part and the skills of the Priest narrator – though we may entertain some doubts as to whether or not he has fully understood the impact of his own Tale.

These are increased when we read the Epilogue where the Host praises the Priest as a man but insults him as a priest by accentuating his possible sexual prowess as a worthy comparison to that of the cockerel. If he were secular he would be a “trede-foul” with “corage” [virile cock in the act of copulation] and would need even more women/hens than seven to assuage his lusts. He draws attention to the man’s “braunes” [muscles], large neck and chest, so much so that it is possible he thought that the Priest is more of a bodyguard than a religious companion to the Nun. The imagery of a “sperhauk” reminds us of the birds in the tale and we do wonder about the Priests’ sexuality and experience as he is now referred to as so colourful that he needs no red dyes. The physiology is not that of a modest scholar, yet Harry Bailly has enjoyed the story the more because of that element of robustness, as have we.

Summary: a trivial episode has been treated in an epic manner and is an exercise in the humour of the incongruous: elevated and exaggerated passages of rhetoric are brought down when we recall that we are in a barnyard rather than Troy or Rome. The manner of telling uses many rhetorical devices and yet would have had appeal for the lower characters amongst the pilgrims as well as for the more learned. The Priest does have a grasp of form, a subtle narrative technique, control – for the most part – of tone, skill in handling his allusions and a true sense of humanity, paradoxically when considering the matrimonial disputes of hens. The theme is that reason and the instincts of pride and lust are in conflict and that either Fate or character may prevail in the battle. The Tale raises larger issues of philosophy, love, destiny, responsibility but finally suggests that self-preservation is a matter of self-control and yet Chaucer, whilst using ridicule, is not finally making ridiculous man nor animal nor the heroic mode: the whole is a gentle and positive amalgam.